Crystal Southback Traverse
January 9, 2021
Dan and I have been...
spending a lot of time this winter exploring the Crystal Mountain backcountry, and we are having so much fun getting to know it better. When we first started touring, maybe 4-5 years ago, Dan had ran into Kyle Miller's trip report of his "Crystal Mountain Southback Complete Traverse" and was super inspired by it. We decided that our skills, weather, and time off had finally lined up for us to complete this traverse, so we wanted to give it a go.
Our second descent of the day off of Three Way Peak. Triggered a small Loose Dry slide, just under the tree, but nothing else too concerning.
Kyle's traverse starts off from Chair 6, and traverses all the way over to Three Way Peak. This gives a more "complete" feel to the Southback traverse, however if you aren't wanting to go in the resort, skinning up and just starting your traverse from Three Way is of course a valid start as well. We took off from Chair 6, descended down the West side of Three Way, and came back up the East side to try to gain the summit via the ridge. We knew that since we were attempting this mid-winter, when avalanches are a more frequent factor than they are in the spring when Kyle did this line, we might encounter slopes and ridges that we weren't comfortable travelling on due to conditions. (In our case for today, we had to be cautious of Wind Slabs). We found that the ridge that we would need to travel to get to the summit of Three Way was a bit too wind-loaded for our liking, and so we deviated from the standard traverse, and skied from the arm we were on. Conditions were awesome, and we bounced down the powder into the basin.
During the day, there were two distinct times where we saw a lot of people, and this basin contained one of them. We were concerned about crowds stopping us from moving fast, but found most of the people in this basin were skinning to the west of Three Way for whatever reason. Probably to get to Crystal Lakes Basin? Either way, we found it kind of funny that everyone was heading to the tracked-out side of Three Way when there was powder just to the east of Three Way.
From Three Way, we skinned up to the top of Joe's Badass Shoulder which is a fun line in the F'k'n Fine Forest off of a little knob just to the east of Three Way Peak. Being cautious of wind affect, Dan cut the top of the slope, and we had a small bit of propagation that we didn't like. We chose to enter a bit east of where we did the cut, which was lower angle and softer. This skied well.
Up next was skiing the Gunbarrel which is off of Gunbarrel peak just east again of our previous run. We zipped up this, and it skied quite well again. Our next run was Dog Leg chute off of Dog Legged Peak. Gaining the peak here was the second spot where we saw a lot of people, and for a brief period things felt a bit tense. However, we decided to break the silence with a friendly, "Hey! How's it going!" This seemed to break any awkwardness and while it did slow us down a bit, we made the most of it by chatting with the groups among us. Luckily for us, both groups said they weren't actually skiing Dog Leg, so we quickly transitioned at the top and made our way to the entrance. The entrance to Dog Leg is skier's right off of the summit, and not entirely obvious, so it took a bit of scouting. The couloir had been skied before us by what looked like a couple of parties, but the snow was still deep in the couloir, and we were able to ski nice snow all the way down.
Dan skiing down the Gunbarrel
Me skiing down the upper section of Dog Leg.
We skied Dog Leg down to right around 5,500ft where we stopped, transitioned, and then made our way across to Bear Gap. All of our skiing up to this point had almost felt like we were just lapping the same slope, which was tons of fun for the downhill, but looking across to Platinum Peak made our hearts sink a bit when we realized how much more we had to go. Nonetheless, we grabbed a snack and traveled up the west side of Pickhandle Point to gain the west ridge. The north face of Pickhandle again skied quite well, and we picked our way down to Gold Hills, taking care to avoid the waterfall, which is the fall line. We stayed skier's left to avoid this and had no trouble.
We got to our next transition point, which was part way down Gold Hills and checked in with eachother. It was around 2pm by now, and the sun was going to set at 4:40. We knew it would be a push to finish this thing, but we kinda wanted to just try hard and see what comes of it. We decided to keep trekking and to check in again around 3pm. We grabbed a snack and some water and pushed on up towards Bullion Peak.
Dan looking back at me skinning away from Three Way Peak earlier in the day.
Looking up at Dan skiing the upper section of Dog Leg couloir.
About an hour and a half later, we were standing on the top of Bullion, staring down our next line - Carnival Chutes. We discussed our options. One was to ski the Carnival line, which would descend all the way to the drainage at 5,500ft. Our second option was to deviate from Kyle's route and just try to get to the top of Platinum before sunset and weather rolled in. It had been windy all day, but we knew that the wind was only growing through the night and that precipitation was rolling in at night as well. We opted to give ourselves the best shot we could at completing a traverse, and skied the NE face of Bullion down to the lake, and from there started working our way up Platinum.
By this time, the wind was blowing pretty hard, with strong gusts, and to make matters worse, the skintrack had been blown and skied over in a way that made it really hard to skin. We had 20 minutes until the sun set, as I called up to Dan to stop for a second so we could chat. We had about 700 feet to go to finish off our day. We felt so close! But something just wasn't quite sitting well.
Dan skiing the lower section of the NE face of Bullion Peak. You can see a little cornice drop at the top which kept skiers away from the upper center of the run.
Up on Bullion Peak, looking back towards Chair 6, where we started. Fun perspective!
Often in the mountains, there isn't one big "red light" telling you to go home. Sometimes there is, and that can be convenient, as it gives you confidence in your decisions. However a lot of accidents happen when little things add up. I wanted to pull our team aside and give the space to consider all of these little factors. The most obvious one was darkness. "Last light" was at 5:15, however when a storm is rolling in, and there's no moonlight, how "light" really is last light... We both had headlamps, but it adds a factor that needs to be considered. We also were travelling on a different slope than we really had been all day, and we were seeing effects that we hadn't seen on other slopes. Primarily this was shown with a lot of "wind skin" breaking off as we travelled. Nothing was propagating, however it still is a piece of the puzzle. Another factor was that the winds were blowing hard, as they had been slowly growing all day. "How fast does a wind slab build?" I asked out loud to Dan, mostly for us to ponder, I knew we both didn't have the answer. The last factor that I brought up was that we had been pushing hard all day, and we both were tired, and that leaves potential for injury. Dan had worked around a 50 hour work week, and we had only gotten 4 hours of sleep the night before. Decision fatigue was definitely setting in, as we had to be thoughtful about our path of travel all day.
Ultimately we decided to turn around part way up Platinum Peak mostly due to the fact that this was the first time we had been on this aspect all day, and we didn't feel as confident as we'd like going up the slope. Sure, we could see that it had been skied all day, but the slope we were ascending WAS avalanche terrain. We didn't want to just rely on what others had done. We turned around, and felt validated in our decision by the amount of chunky wind skin that were breaking off as we skied down the lowest angle we could find.
Did we make the correct decision in turning around? Not sure. I think so? However maybe we could have done it just fine. Who knows. Enough added up for us to feel good about our decision, and we still do. Now we've got to go back and do it complete next time! Thanks Kyle for the inspiration and for a great traverse.
Total mileage of the day - 12.5 miles
Total elevation gain - 6,200 ft
Total time - 7:44:41
Max slope angle of the day - Most every descent was around 40-45 degrees, with Dog Leg being the steepest at around 50 degrees. Dog Leg had some narrow sections as well.
GPS via Strava - https://www.strava.com/activities/4595321654
Song that was stuck in my head all day - "Formation" by Beyoncé . You know it's going to be a good day when you've got Queen Bey stuck in your head.